Mccamey v. Dept. of Employment Services, No. 04-AA-211.

Decision Date15 May 2008
Docket NumberNo. 04-AA-211.
Citation947 A.2d 1191
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals

Julie V. Abizaid, with whom David L. Elkind was on the brief, for petitioner.

Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General for the District of Columbia, with whom Robert J. Spagnoletti, Attorney General for the District of Columbia at the time the brief was filed, Edward E. Schwab, Deputy Solicitor General at the time the brief was filed, and Sheila Kaplan, Assistant Attorney General, were on the brief, for respondent.


WASHINGTON, Chief Judge:

Charlene McCamey petitioned this court to review a decision of the Director of the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services (D.C.DOES) that denied her workers' compensation claim for psychological injuries she alleges resulted from an accidental physical injury suffered in the course of her employment. A three-judge division of this court affirmed the Director's decision, holding that the Director's application of an objective test to workers' compensation claims involving psychological injuries was consistent with this court's prior decisions. We granted Ms. McCamey's petition for rehearing en banc to consider whether application of an objective standard, as currently defined, to psychological injuries that are related to work-related physical injuries is consistent with the language and purpose of our workers' compensation law. We conclude that it is not and accordingly must reverse.


Ms. McCamey was employed by the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) as a visiting instructor for homebound students. On September 29, 2000, while on the job, Ms. McCamey suffered injuries to her forehead, lower back and neck when she fell as a result of the collapse of a table that she and another instructor were moving. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who heard her case found that as a result of the fall, Ms. McCamey suffered frequent, extensive, and excruciating headaches. In addition, following the accident, McCamey was afflicted with "depression, panic attacks, confusion, auditory hallucinations, and memory loss."

The foregoing events, however, occurred in the context of a serious pre-existing psychological illness. During the mid-1990s, several years prior to the accident, Ms. McCamey had begun to experience psychological problems attributable in substantial part to the death of her father, who had spent most of his life in a mental hospital.1 Ms. McCamey was treated by a psychiatrist, Dr. Maria C. Hammill, and subsequently returned to work. It is undisputed that after completing her treatment regimen, Ms. McCamey was capable of performing her regular employment duties without incident. Indeed, the ALJ found that Ms. McCamey had not seen Dr. Hammill for several years prior to the workplace accident.

At issue in this case is Ms. McCamey's claim for temporary total disability benefits arising from the psychological injuries that she attributes to her workplace accident. Dr. Hammill, the treating psychiatrist, was of the opinion that the workplace incident exacerbated Ms. McCamey's pre-existing psychological disorder. Dr. Bruce Smoller, a psychiatrist who examined Ms. McCamey on behalf of DCPS, and who relied in part on an MRI scan of Ms. McCamey's brain and on thyroid tests, opined that the source of Ms. McCamey's psychological injury was not her accident, but rather a pre-existing psychosis. In a "Recommended Compensation Order" entered on April 22, 2003, the ALJ denied Ms. McCamey's claim for psychological injury. Applying to the record before him the Director's analysis in Dailey v. 3M Co. & Northwest Nat'l Ins. Co., H & AS No. 85-259 (May 19, 1988), and this court's decision in Porter v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 625 A.2d 886 (D.C.1993), the ALJ found

1. that "claimant herein has presented substantial evidence of a cognizable injury";

2. that Ms. McCamey's "stressors," i.e., the aggravation of her pre-existing psychological condition, "did arise in the course of her employment,"2 but

3. that Ms. McCamey failed to satisfy the "objective" standard approved in Porter, i.e., that a person of normal sensibilities with no history of mental illness would have suffered a similar psychological injury.

Ms. McCamey appealed to the Director of D.C. DOES. On February 10, 2004, the Director affirmed the ALJ's decision. The Director found, as had the ALJ, that "Claimant's pre-existing condition was exacerbated by a physical injury." Nevertheless, the Director upheld the denial of compensation, reasoning that although Dr. Hammill and Dr. Smoller expressed different opinions, "[n]either opined, and the evidence did not show, that an individual who did not have a pre-existing anxiety disorder would have suffered a psychological injury as a result of trauma to the head."

Ms. McCamey filed a timely petition for review of the Director's decision. A three-judge panel of this court affirmed, holding that while Ms. McCamey's position was not "implausible in principle," it was nevertheless foreclosed due to the court's decisions in Porter, supra, 625 A.2d at 888-89, and Landesberg v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 794 A.2d 607, 614-15 (D.C.2002). See McCamey v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 886 A.2d 543, 548 (D.C.2005). Subsequently, this court granted Ms. McCamey's petition for rehearing en banc. McCamey v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 896 A.2d 191 (D.C.2006).

A. Standard of Review.

This court "will not disturb an agency decision if it rationally flows from the factual findings on which it is based and if those findings are supported by substantial evidence." Children's Defense Fund v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 726 A.2d 1242, 1247 (D.C.1999). Therefore, this court will affirm the agency's ruling unless it is arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise an abuse of discretion and not in accordance with the law. See Landesberg, supra, 794 A.2d at 612. Questions of law, however, are reviewed de novo. See King v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 742 A.2d 460, 466 (D.C.1999). "To be sure, `an agency's interpretation of its own regulations or of the statute which it administers is generally entitled to great deference from this court. There is, however, a well-recognized exception to this rule. When the agency's decision is inconsistent with the applicable statute ... we owe it far less deference, if indeed we owe it any deference at all.'" Id. (quoting Columbia Realty Venture v. District of Columbia Rental Hous. Comm'n, 590 A.2d 1043, 1046 (D.C.1991)). As we have noted before, "`the agency's interpretation of the statute it administers is not binding upon this court [if] it conflicts with the plain meaning of the statute or its legislative history.'" Murphy v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 935 A.2d 1066, 1070 (D.C.2007) (quoting Lincoln Hockey LLC v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 810 A.2d 862, 866 (D.C.2002)) (citations omitted). "[T]he judiciary is the final authority on issues of statutory construction." Harris v. District of Columbia Office of Worker's Comp., 660 A.2d 404, 407 (D.C.1995) (citing Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 843 n. 9, 104 S.Ct. 2778 (1984)).

Panel decisions by this court bind future divisions of the court. See M.A.P. v. Ryan, 285 A.2d 310, 312 (D.C. 1971). The court sitting en banc, however, may overrule the decisions of prior divisions. See id. "Although the doctrine of stare decisis has considerable force in statutory analysis because [the legislature] can correct a court's interpretive mistakes through legislation, we should not `appl[y] stare decisis mechanically to prohibit overturning our earlier decision determining the meaning of statutes.'" In re McBride, 602 A.2d 626, 636 (D.C.1992) (en banc) (quoting Monell v. New York City Dep't of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 695, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978)).

B. Principles of Workers' Compensation Law.

The District of Columbia Workers' Compensation Act ("WCA") provides for the compensation of employees who suffer disabilities that are causally connected to workplace injuries. The WCA covers "[t]he injury or death of an employee that occurs in the District of Columbia if the employee performed work for the employer, at the time of the injury or death, while in the District of Columbia." D.C.Code § 32-1503(a)(1) (2001). The Act further defines "injury" as

[A]ccidental injury or death arising out of and in the course of employment, and such occupational disease or infection as arises naturally out of such employment or as naturally or unavoidably results from such accidental injury, and includes an injury caused by the willful act of third persons directed against an employee because of his employment.

D.C.Code § 32-1501(12) (2001).

Workers' Compensation laws reflect a compromise between employees and employers regarding injuries arising out of employment. "The District of Columbia Workers' Compensation Act of 1979, like its 1928 predecessor, was enacted to provide a reasonably quick and efficient manner to compensate employees for disabilities resulting from employment-bred injuries. Employees and employers were both thought to gain by a system in which common law tort remedies were discarded for assured compensation regardless of negligence or fault." Ferreira v. District of Columbia Dep't of Employment Servs., 531 A.2d 651, 654 (D.C.1987) (footnote omitted); cf. D.C.Code § 32-1504(b) (2001) (providing that compensation under the Act is the employee's exclusive remedy against the employer for "any illness, injury, or death arising out of and in...

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